Parents and Children Together: The Complex Needs of Low-Income Men and How Responsible Fatherhood Programs Address Them
- Fathers described lives full of adversity during childhood and adolescence, including abuse, neglect, poverty, and the absence of their fathers. As adults, many experienced job, income, and housing instability; racial discrimination; loss; and depressive symptoms.
- Many fathers shared that as they grew older, they came to accept responsibility for actions that led them to incarceration and relationship instability as young men. Fatherhood became a strong motivation for them to turn their lives around—for the sake of their children and themselves.
- Programs offered content to address many of the needs and challenges expressed by fathers, and fathers resonated strongly to most of the services provided.
- Fathers’ participation in services likely reflected their interests but also linked to Responsible Fatherhood program features, such as structure and type of content offered.
Millions of American children are living without their biological fathers as a result of high divorce rates and non-marital relationships. Research has shown that fathers’ positive parental involvement and support is associated with better outcomes for children. Therefore, to increase father involvement, responsible fatherhood programs have been designed to provide fathers with services aimed at improving their parenting skills and economic stability.
Congress authorized funding for the Responsible Fatherhood grant program to address these issues in 2005. The grant program is administered by the Office of Family Assistance at the Administration for Children and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Responsible Fatherhood grants require programs to offer services for fathers in three areas: parenting and fatherhood, economic stability, and healthy marriage and relationships.
Large-scale and rigorous evaluations of fatherhood programs have been sparse, leading to gaps in understanding whether men who voluntarily participate in these programs are having their needs met through program services and how that in turn might affect their engagement and participation. Many of the program participants have precarious employment, criminal records, mental health issues, and emotional challenges stemming from their own traumatic childhoods. In addition, most of the participants were never married to the mothers of their children, and two-thirds were no longer romantically involved with their mothers.
To address this evaluation gap, Mathematica researchers have been evaluating responsible fatherhood programs through the Parents and Children Together evaluation, a large-scale, multicomponent project intended to broaden our understanding of Responsible Fatherhood and Healthy Marriage programs. The evaluation is being conducted on behalf of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation.
This report provides an understanding of programmatic responsible fatherhood features that lead to strong engagement and participation by the fathers and provide context for the evaluation's forthcoming results on parenting, healthy relationships, and economic stability. This report specifically addresses three questions:
- What were the circumstances, experiences, needs, and concerns of fathers at program entry?
- To what extent and how did programs seek to address the needs, concerns, and circumstances presented by fathers?
- How did fathers respond to the offered programming in terms of their participation and perceptions of the services received?